Kalnins confident about NATO

  • 1999-09-23
  • By Ben Smith

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Latvia's Ambassador to the United States Ojars
Kalnins said "there is no way we are on the back burner" for NATO
membership despite NATO's focus on Kosovo and despite Russian
hostility to NATO expansion.

Kalnins pointed to U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbot's
July affirmation of the U.S.-Baltic Charter, which promised an "open
door" policy toward NATO membership. At a Washington, D.C. ceremony,
Talbot chose his words carefully: The U.S.A., he said, is "committed
to working with our Baltic friends to help them get ready to be
members of the alliance."

But Kalnins, who completes his term as independent Latvia's first
ambassador at the end of this year, remains frustrated with Russia's
"unspoken veto" over the international military organization.

Despite the strong support of the United States and Denmark, Western
European countries are not eager to antagonize their troubled eastern
neighbor, he said.

"If Russia sees the West as fragmented, they [the Russians] will
exploit that," Kalnins said.

State Department Deputy Director for Nordic and Baltic Affairs Damian
Leader said, "There is no Russian veto over any country's accession
to NATO."

The ambassador compared the current debate over NATO expansion to the
international debate over Baltic independence in 1989 and 1990. Then,
most Western countries supported absolute independence in principle -
but in practice, they suggested that Latvia seek partial independence
to placate Moscow.

"We got our independence, Moscow has learned to live with it and life
goes on," Kalnins said. "If the West is firm and makes it very clear
that this is not a threat, there's not much Russia can or should do."

Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga will push for Latvia's
recognition as a European state during her first visit to the United
States this week, the ambassador said. During a trip that includes an
address to the United Nations and a meeting with U.S. Secretary of
State Madeleine Albright, Vike-Freiberga will focus on "two kinds of
integration": the integration of Latvia's Russian minority into the
body politic and the integration of Latvia into organizations like
NATO and the European Union.

While NATO wavers, Latvia is receiving international aid to get its
military up to speed. However, said Kalnins, military readiness is a
peripheral issue: Iceland has no military, and Luxembourg's is
"minimal," but both have NATO membership.

And as Latvia and her sister Baltic republics wait in European
limbo, Kalnins plans to take the fight to another front: culture. The
ambassador, a former Chicago advertising executive, returns to Riga
at the end of this year as head of the fledgling Latvia's Institute,
which focuses on bringing Latvia to the world stage. The position was
last held by Vike-Freiberga before her election in June.

By the time NATO makes up its mind, Kalnins hopes he will have placed
Latvian tunes on "world music" racks across Europe and America.